Aquaman, Captain Marvel, Shazam herald age of box-office B-listers

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While “Captain Marvel” is directly tied to the “Avengers” movie franchise, Marvel is making a strategic gamble by introducing her in her own solo endeavor, instead of with an ensemble that’s already made billions at the box office.

With that in mind, Mike Avila, Syfy Wire’s East Coast contributing editor, said that “characters matter” for some of comic book’s also-ran heroes. An example of this was Marvel’s two “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, both of which earned upward of $700 million worldwide.

“Twenty minutes into ‘Guardians’ or ‘Aquaman’ and especially ‘Iron Man,’ no one is thinking about their place in comic book hierarchy. Those movies … worked because fans made a connection,” said Avila, who also wrote a book about the making of “Aquaman.”

Lower-profile heroes “allow for greater creative liberties to be taken, because the history and canon isn’t as deep or well known as Batman’s backstory,” he added.

Conversely, some think the booming success of Marvel’s interconnected universe may be creating the opportunity for B- and C-list heroes to thrive. One of the strongest assets lesser-known characters have is the lack of expectations that come with turning a marquee superhero into an instant box-office success.

“Frankly, there is less baggage and lower expectations when it comes to the lower-profile or virtually unknown characters, and thus a recipe for under promising and over delivering can ultimately turn these B & C list heroes into box-office superheroes,” Comscore’s Dergarabedian said.

Syfy’s Avila agreed, saying that when studios are “not weighed down by decades of continuity and familiarity, you have more flexibility to take chances. And recent history has shown that those superhero movies that take some risks, reap the rewards.”

Elevated expectations are what helped brand DC’s “Justice League” as a commercial and critical disappointment that fell far short of earning $1 billion, something “Aquaman” is poised to do as early as next week.

For that reason, Warner Bros. is banking heavily on stand-alone heroes as it charts a path forward. Still, analysts believe there’s still life in interconnected movies that spawned a multibillion-dollar goldmine for Marvel.

“I’m sure these [B- and C-list superheroes] can be more than one-hit wonders if the studio is invested in making sequels. Having an extended universe makes more sense. The more characters they have, the more movies they can make,” said Exhibitor Relations analyst Karie Bible. “Studios do look for proven material that will have broad, mainstream appeal.”

— Donovan Russo, special to CNBC.com

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